Wyndham Rose Hall hides behind a gate, a rolling lawn that blends with its adjacent golf course and a guard named Robert. How very exclusive for an all-inclusive.
"We have everything, mon," said a waiter, in his velvety Jamaican accent. And they did: "free" drinks, food, activities, all offered within the confines of the attractive resort. But when I was ready to try something beyond--something not on a menu, or something authentically Jamaican--I was pretty much out of luck.
Wyndham, an American chain, is awash in generic grandeur: high ceilings and soothing color schemes, faux Ming vases and oversize potted plants. A covered outdoor deck with a square bar--the social epicenter--affords views of the swimming pools (three, plus hot tub, kiddie area, water slide and artificial current for tube riders) and sunken bars (two). The private white sand beach fans out just beyond the activities station. It fits compactly between two jetties and is patrolled by guards, who shoo away the water-resistant drug dealers.
It is here, among scores of vacant beach chairs, that I was ready to flash my all-inclusive bracelet and play hard. A blackboard listed the sunrise-to-sunset activities: patois class, horseshoe and table tennis tournaments, Tae-Bo, reggae dancing lessons, poolside fashion show. One morning, I joined about 15 others in the pool to Aquacise. We did leg lifts underwater and pumped plastic dumbbells to Top 40 pop as an audience of morning drinkers watched from the in-pool bar. But it was the rack of kayaks and beached Sunfish sailboats that beckoned.
At the activities shack, I inquired about the free kayaks and snorkel equipment, but all were in use. I could not reserve one and was told to come back later. After ruling out sailing and windsurfing due to light winds, I could either pay for an activity or take a nap. I chose the latter.
My second try was more fruitful. I was able to secure a kayak and a guide, and even flout the 20-minute time limit. Together, we paddled hard past the buoys and bobbing heads and toward the coral reef. We jumped off the wobbly plastic tub and just floated. From afar, the hotel sat like two giant shoe boxes, snug within verdant hills and the front nine of the golf course. Not wanting to monopolize the kayak too much, we returned to shore just before my afternoon jaunt off the grounds.
My initial foray away from the resort was unsuccessful. Simply walking out the front gate didn't work. The puzzled guard ventured out of his cubicle to quiz me on where I was going, did I need a cab, why on earth would I want to take a walk? I understood his questioning the minute I stepped onto the buzzing two-lane highway with three strips of traffic. Down the road to my right was a string of resorts much like my own: a Holiday Inn, the exclusive Half Moon. To my left was a field littered with cans, stray socks and skinny cows. Farther down were collapsible tables selling polished conch shells. Beyond that, I never found out. I returned to the resort, defeated.
So, to explore the countryside I opted for a $65 mountain bike adventure in the rugged hills by Ocho Rios with the tour group Chukka Cove. Accompanied by guests from other all-inclusives, I cruised down sloping, bumpy lanes on a purple mountain bike. Along the way, the guides pointed out allspice plants and herbs that stop mosquito-bite itches. We waved at local children in underpants and stopped at a cliff-side bar for a complimentary Red Stripe beer. The trip ended in the ocean, with snorkeling and cliff-diving.
By afternoon's end, I had spent more money and energy than I had in four days. But my one trip outside the resort revealed a slice of Jamaica that never seemed to get past the gates of Wyndham.
INCLUSIVENESS: Repeat after me: "It is included but . . ." For example, tennis court time is free but racquet rentals cost $5, balls are $7 and a hitting partner charges $10 per 30 minutes (for instruction, add $10). Golf is included, but there is a fee for the mandatory cart and caddie ($40 and $14 for 18 holes, respectively). All non-motorized sports are included, but there is a $12 charge for 15 minutes on a plastic banana float, because it is pulled by a motorboat. The outdoor masseuse who sets up shop in a tent by the beach charges $40 per half-hour.
For dining, all food is included, with a couple of exceptions. Room service, for one. At Luna di Mare, AIPs (all-inclusive people) order off a different menu than EPs (exclusive people). The former menu omits dishes with lobster, grilled beef, veal and other expensive imports, and there is an extra charge for San Pelligrino. Across the street, by the golf shop, Ambrosia Restaurant offers diners a $20 meal credit, but most entrees cost more than $20. At the resort and restaurants, house-brand drinks, beer and wine by the glass, and soda and juice are included; top-shelf brands and full bottles are not.
OFF-RESORT EXCURSIONS: Setting foot outside the resort will cost you. The hotel, less than 15 miles from Montego Bay, offers taxi service to town for $15 one way. A pack of drivers not contracted by Wyndham wait across the street. They charge $10 one way. Adventurous types can hail a cab for $1, but be warned, it may carry more passengers than seats. Wyndham also offers a $10 shopping shuttle that stops at two duty-free strip malls and a craft market. The hotel also sets up off-resort tours ranging from hikes up Dunn's River Falls to romantic sunset tours along Negril beaches. Cost: from $30 for a half day to $73 for a full day and up.
BOOKING: My first step was calling the toll-free numbers for Beaches and Allegro, whose ads I had seen in travel magazines. But their agents could not easily pull together an air-and-land package--or at least a reasonably priced one. Beaches could only tell me that I had to take a charter, go for a week and travel within certain dates. Those flights left from Philadelphia, Boston, New York, Newark or Chicago, so I'd have to make my own arrangements to get there. If I made my own flight plans, the Beaches agent said I would have to call the resort back and relay that information to them. Sorry, Beaches, too much work. Allegro has separate booking offices for air and hotel, and it was difficult to coordinate in one call.
Fed up, I turned to Horizon Tours, a D.C.-based firm I found on the Web (202-393-8390, www.horizontours.com). My agent, Eddie Lloyd, listed the pros and cons of the more popular all-inclusives in the Caribbean. As for locales, he suggested an island with nonstop flights, so I wouldn't spend half my vacation en route. We settled on Jamaica. But which resort? Lloyd gave me a top-five list of places to stay--Wyndham being in the middle, price-wise--and described the environs. He quoted a final price, I gave him a credit card number and the deed was done.
TRAVEL TIME: About three hours from D.C., including a two-hour-plus plane trip and a 15-minute shuttle to the hotel. I left on an 8:15 a.m. flight and was in the ocean before noon. The trip home, however, took a little longer, due to a flight delay. After departing the hotel at 3 p.m., I did not arrive home until after 11.
TOTAL COST: $1,321.80 for four days/three nights, or $330.45 per day. This included $1,159 for the package, plus $10 for the shopping tour, $10.80 for dinner at Ambrosia, $65 for the mountain bike trip and $50 for an hour-long golf lesson. I paid a $27 departure tax.
CONTACT: 1-800-822-4200, www.wyndham.com.
If This Resort Were a Drink . . .
. . . it would be a strawberry- banana frozen daiquiri. It starts out delicious, but gets cloying halfway through and ends up watered down, and a bit dull.